By Eric Norford
Editor’s Note: Several months ago, we ran a special issue edited by Marc Gibson, entitled “Bring the Books.” This article was accidentally left out of that series.
The preacher’s library is not complete unless it has the book about J.D. Tant: Texas Preacher. It is important that young preachers not lose sight of those preachers who taught God’s Word in the ruff and rugged America of the late 19th and early 20th Century.
J.D. Tant entered this world during the Civil War in 1861. When he was fourteen years old he joined the Methodist Church. He began preaching the Methodist doctrine at the age of nineteen. However, a year later his life changed when he heard the preaching of the true gospel by a preacher named W.H.D. Carrington. Young Tant obeyed the gospel on August 14, 1881 and began preaching on August 21, 1881.
J.D. Tant began preaching in East Texas. He often did physical work when he wasn’t preaching. He worked on farms, he was a hired hand at times, and he even worked in a music school. Regardless of where it was, he worked hard. Late at night when everyone was asleep, J.D. Tant would stay up reading his Bible or another book. If there was a preaching appointment Tant would ride to it. He sometimes traveled all night and often on a horse to get to the church where he would preach. There were times when he had to swim across a river to get to a preaching appointment. Preaching the word of God meant a lot to brother Tant and he worked hard at preaching it. The results were thousands of people brought to the Lord.
His greatest single work may have been debating. He began debating denominational preachers in 1886. From that time in his early years, J.D. Tant would often hold two or three debates a month depending on his schedule. He thought that debating was a good tool to use to get people to see error and change their lives. Many times after his debates he would stay and preach for the church there and the results could be seen from the debate by the conversions that took place. Contrast that with today’s attitude among brethren that we shouldn’t waste our time debating denominationalism and our liberal brethren.
J.D. Tant lived during a time when two major issues con-fronted the church The society issue and instrumental music issue. The society issue was the same as the missionary society issue, in fact it was growing in popularity during brother Tant’s day. The Instrumental Music Issue was also gaining popularity. Both these inventions were contrary to the Scriptures. It was these two issues that were causing division in the churches of Christ in Texas in the 1890s. By the late 1890s the rate of division among Texas churches was accelerating. J.D. Tant wrote at the time that brethren should not be standing on the defensive side any longer, but to take the offensive and “invade the churches.” Brother Tant was thick in the fight. He was one of the Texas preachers who tried valiantly to save churches from digressing from the truth into error. However, when the division came, about one in five churches was estimated to be saved from digression. When he went to Tennessee in 1898 to hold gospel meetings for various churches, he met many gospel preachers like David Lipscomb and T.W. Brents. The churches there were not dividing over the issues that Texas churches were. Brother Tant seemed relieved to know that there were brethren still willing to stand up for the truth and defend it. If he could see how things have changed in Tennessee in the late 1990s, he would be saddened.
J.D. Tant wrote articles for two brotherhood papers The Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation (when both stood doctrinally sound on the right side of the issues). He was field editor for the Gospel Advocate from 1894-1898. It was one of his articles in the Gospel Advocate that he addressed the young preachers of his day. He wrote, “To those boy preachers I would say: Much experiences and observation have taught me that it will be hard for you to succeed by preaching only once or twice a week at some stated places. Go out and preach all the time; stay at a place as long as you can do good; preach at least six times a week for the first four or five years; preach in the highways and school houses and among private families; do not wait till Sunday for a big crowd. If you can get as many as Philip had, preach the word, and rest assured God will give the increase” (Gospel Advocate, 15 April 1897).
It was also during his early writing years and his later years that he usually ended his writings with a phrase we often hear today, “Brethren, don’t forget, we are drifting!” If brother Tant could see many concoctions that exist today in the Lord’s church, he would no doubt say that “we have drifted and sunk!” However, his phrase expressed his feelings at the time when the brethren were studying and debating the Society and Instrumental Music Issues. Many were following the false teaching at the time or were leaning in that direction. This caused the division to occur in the Lord’s church.
Brother Tant had the ability to tell people they were wrong straightforward. It seems he often spoke what he thought was appropriate to say. This got him in trouble once with his future mother-in-law when he addressed a letter entitled “Old Lady Yater.” He noted one time about a congregation in Golden Lake, Arkansas that they had thirty in number. He said “ten of them were Christians in faith and practice; the others impressed me as being Christians in faith, but very little practice.” He said once of a church in Tennessee that they had indifference, backbiting, envy, hatred, and covetousness existing among the members. He said he found the devil to have the upper hand with some of those members. Brother Tant spoke what brethren needed to hear always. He said he always spoke the truth to all in the spirit of Christ.
While living in Tennessee the problems that Texas churches had faced thirty years earlier were beginning to creep in. For example in January 1910, the West Tennessee brethren called a meeting to convene at the church in Henderson, Tennessee. They called on elders and preachers to attend in order to evangelize the western part of the state. J.D. Tant went merely as a visitor and did not speak at the meeting. David Lipscomb was very apprehensive about this meeting. He wrote that nothing good comes from these meetings and that brethren should individually and collectively stand on the solid ground. The plan that came of this meeting was Henderson would send out a preacher to West Tennessee and various churches send money to them to support this work. This was the old plan that brother Tant confronted in Texas called “receiving, managing, and disbursing church.” We know it today as the “Sponsoring Church Arrangement.” Both us-ages of the terms are unscriptural works.
In the mid-1910s, another problem began to arise with more frequency the Pastor system. Some had the idea to hire a young preacher to come in, build up the church, and preside over it. Apparently brethren believed at the time that if a young man received a degree from a “Bible College” then the church should hire him. Brother Tant opposed this invention of men. Unfortunately, some brethren today have the same ideas that brethren had in those days. The West Virginia School of Preaching is about 35 miles from my house and is supported by many liberal churches of Christ in the area. They are doing a work that the church alone can do.
Brother Tant opposed the Bible Colleges. He believed schools could teach the Bible. However, he did not believe that they should take the place of the church and its work to teach the Bible. He did not believe that the church could support the college with its own funds. He feared that the colleges might lead churches astray from the truth. He did not believe that the church could support any human institution. This principle applied to orphan homes. Yet it seemed that he contradicted himself on this issue. The Board of Directors of Tennessee Orphan Home employed Tant to travel over the country telling brethren about this Home and to solicit support for it. The orphan home was taking the place of benevolence just as the Missionary Society had taken over in the realm of evangelism. Why would he compromise on this issue? Yater Tant wrote, “To understand his thinking on this, it is needful to keep in mind his own emotional feeling for the poor, the distressed, the unfortunate of the earth.” Brother G.C. Brewer thought there was inconsistency between Tant’s teaching and his practice. In the later years when the orphan home issue came to light more fully, it seems that brother Brewer’s criticism is justified, although brother Tant probably never fully realized the impact orphan homes would have on the church.
Tant spent the last years of his life in Texas. He passed from this life June 1, 1941. Brother Tant had the distinction of becoming a legend in his own time. He loved the Lord and loved to teach the gospel., a trait that all preachers, including young preachers, should have. He was arguably “under paid” for his work, but he continued preaching the word. What a lesson this is for us. As a preacher, I don’t preach for the money, I preach to reach lost souls and to build up my brethren; however, there is nothing wrong in a preacher receiving adequate support from the local church and brethren.
J.D. Tant didn’t speak long sermons, in fact he rarely went over 35 minutes. He said what he needed to say and then sat down. A wonderful lesson for us, we should say what is needed and then sit down. The results of his preaching the Word of God only could be seen in the thousands of conversions that took place by that preaching. God had granted the increase.
I would encourage any young preacher just starting to get the book J.D. Tant Texas Preacher by Fanning Yater Tant, read it, learn from it, and see how preachers like brother Tant endured during prosperous and sorrowful times between the brethren and how he kept on preaching the Word of God. Then when we pass from this life maybe we can say like Paul, “I have fought the good fight . . . “
Guardian of Truth XLI: 7 p. 5-6
April 3, 1997